Photo: Cape Spear lighthouse Newfoundland

Scenic landmarks like the Cape Spear lighthouse and landscapes teeming with birdlife earn Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula the top score.

Photograph by Christian Heeb, laif/Redux

By Jay Walljasper

From the November-December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

(Score: 84) Imagine Iowa stripped of its farms, or Texas after the oil runs dry. That approaches the cataclysm experienced on the Canadian island of Newfoundland in 1992, when large-scale cod fishing was banned.

The epicenter was Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, which dangles from the island’s southeastern corner by a slender 35-mile-long isthmus. The peninsula is home to one of the oldest English cities in North America—the provincial capital of St. John’s—and a winding coastline dotted with picturesque and accessible fishing villages that look out on the Atlantic Ocean and its Grand Banks. Once one of the world’s most bountiful fishing grounds, these nutrient-rich underwater plateaus powered the economy of the Avalon Peninsula, drawing people to this rugged land to fish big. But severe overfishing in the 1980s decimated the cod population, and it hasn’t recuperated. Many think it never will.

What happens when a centuries-old way of life disappears? Scrappy Newfoundlanders, accustomed to sea breezes blowing through their hair, found other ways to make a living from the ocean. In addition to welcoming offshore oil and natural-gas wells and turning their fishing sights to crabs, lobsters, mussels, and haddock, they turned to tourism. Harborside shops and hotels in St. John’s replaced fishing docks, and boats now leave port for whale-watching and iceberg tours.

A desperate pursuit of tourism dollars can end up ruining a destination. But Professor Michael Hall, who teaches tourism and marketing at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, contends that the Avalon Peninsula has struck the right balance, extolling its “stunning natural and cultural integrity.” He goes even further, calling it “one of the best-kept tourism secrets.”

That may be because the tourism industry here is homegrown, says Shannon Guihan, a Newfoundlander who runs an international food-tour company. “The tourism industry has done well to revitalize the waterfronts,” she says. They also come to enjoy wave-carved shores, remote fishing settlements, coastal hiking trails, colorful birdlife, and a seafaring heritage.

“Visiting the Avalon Peninsula, with its close-knit communities and strong local culture reflected in the music and arts, is like going back in time,” says Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “The unspoiled scenery ranges from stark moonscapes to crystal-clear lakes to open land where caribou roam.” A particular standout: Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, an ornithological Eden where more than 60,000 gannets, gulls, kittiwakes, razorbills, and guillemots roost atop a 300-foot-high rock emerging from the sea.

Other observers have worries. “St. John’s is spreading like an invasive species—a lot of big-box buildings, wide roads, and cookie-cutter developments,” says travel writer Wayne Curtis. “Still, a few miles away lies an amazingly wild coast, where it’s easy to get away on a kayak or for a hike. And the older parts of St. John’s are walkable and historic.”

For Newfoundland native Shannon Guihan it comes down to basic pleasures: nature, culture, food. She urges folks to pack dancing shoes for the thriving music scene in St. John’s. Popular clubs offer an amalgam of rock and Newfoundland folk music, while the pubs showcase everything from sea shanties and Irish music to traditional fiddling and homegrown reggae. Other local specialties she insists everyone try: fish and brewis, a prized concoction of salt cod, hardtack, and fried pork fat; toutons, butter-fried pancakes doused with molasses; and bakeapples, tart orange-yellow berries.

Contributing editor Jay Walljasper writes about sustainability issues.

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